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The Breaking of Michael Arad


Arad shows off his creation to Governor Pataki in December 2004. Looking on are Mayor Bloomberg, memorial co-designer Peter Walker, and John Whitehead, then-chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.  

After that, says Walker, he realized that Arad had not been bluffing when he fought Libeskind. “What he told me in that room was not really true,” Walker says. “There was real anger at Daniel and Nina [Libeskind]. This business of being so angry at things that you can’t function—I think that’s a real problem. He’s not quite in control of himself.”

If Walker saw himself as playing a calming, paternal role, Arad saw him as pretentious, self-serving, and jealous. If Arad saw himself as a righteous advocate for a design validated by a public process, Walker saw him as bossy and naïve. “He wanted us all to be obedient,” says Walker. “Not in a fraternal way, but obedient in terms of process. He wanted us to go out and knock the doors down. I don’t know how you knock the doors of the Port Authority down. Nobody can do that.”

Eventually, Arad’s colleagues at KPF said they could no longer assist him on the project. They were taking on a larger workload, says a partner, including the remodeling of the Museum of Modern Art. The memorial was too big a commitment.

Four months after winning the jury contest, Arad was without a staff, an office, a firm, or a signed contract.

Since the moment he won the commission, Arad had been vehemently opposed to being set up with another firm by the LMDC. But at this point, he had no choice. In April 2004, the LMDC issued a request for proposals (known as an RFP) to select an associate architect to execute the technical aspects of Arad’s design.

With this in the offing, De Chiara recommended to Arad that he join another firm right away. He needed an office, and he needed allies to help him defend his design from whatever firm the LMDC brought in. So De Chiara introduced Arad to Gary Handel, an affable 51-year-old architect who had spent fifteen years at KPF before starting Handel Architects. It seemed like a good fit, and Arad promptly became a partner.

Meanwhile, Davis Brody Bond looked as if it had the inside track for the LMDC’s associate-architect slot. Partner Max Bond had served on an LMDC advisory board, and the firm had done a lot of work for the Port Authority.

Arad preferred another firm, the Polshek Partnership, which he believed would offer him more control, but the odds were stacked against him. The associate architect was to be picked by a panel of three LMDC officials, Arad, and Walker. So Arad tried to sabotage the process. The panelists had to score each of the proposals based on different criteria, and Arad gave zeroes to Davis Brody Bond in every category, which was technically illegal (because it violated state contract laws). An angry panelist reported the incident to Rampe, who removed Arad from the panel, clearing the way for the unanimous selection of Davis Brody Bond. Asked about the incident, Arad will say only that “the final choice for the committee and my own personal choice were not the same.” At that point, the LMDC knew it had to broker peace with Arad before the situation deteriorated further. If nothing else, Arad still had the leverage of going to the press and making it known to the public that the LMDC’s bright young hope was being roughed up by bureaucrats—a threat he made often, say LMDC sources.

Agency officials hoped Max Bond, respected for his diplomatic talents and whose résumé includes designing the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, would be a “maturing” influence on Arad. For his part, Arad agreed to set up an office in Davis Brody Bond’s headquarters on Hudson Street, and in September 2004, he and four associates from Handel Architects moved in.

This could have been the moment that everybody calmed down and solved the remaining logistical problems. Arad, however, was still tensed for battle. Having finally signed a contract that designated him as the lead design architect, he saw Davis Brody Bond as minions whose job was to follow his orders, period. “You hire a driver, you expect them to drive,” Arad says. “That’s the job description. That’s what was in the RFP.”

As a firm, Davis Brody Bond has a practical bent, its architects valued less for their artistry than their expediency. That’s why the LMDC wanted them involved. And because they had such close ties with the LMDC, they went into it believing they had authority to do whatever was necessary to get the project completed, even if that meant crossing Arad.

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